Staffers in Peoria Try to Fend Off ‘Cost-Cutting’ Buyers

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Reporters and editors are staging news conferences as well as covering them these days at Peoria’s daily newspaper.

The Journal Star newsroom union also has launched a Web site and advertising campaign aimed at rallying community support they hope will chase away potential cost-cutting buyers as the central Illinois newspaper awaits its second sale in a decade.

“We’re going to keep making noise and we’re going to keep bringing it to the attention of the community, because we think if they know what’s at stake then they will care and get involved,” said Jennifer Towery, a Journal Star editor and president of the Peoria Newspaper Guild.

The union hopes its “Save the Journal Star” campaign convinces Copley Press Inc. to choose a buyer committed to journalism rather than quick profits, which union members fear could erode the 151-year-old paper’s news staff and coverage.

Newsrooms across the country are shrinking as publishers try to prop up earnings amid declining circulation and advertising revenue in the Internet era. And cutbacks often go hand in hand with a new owner, union leaders and industry analysts say.

About a dozen unionized newsrooms across the country have mounted campaigns similar to Peoria’s, with varying success, said Linda Foley, president of the Washington, D.C.-based Newspaper Guild, Communications Workers of America.

Foley said such activism helped steer the Portland (Maine) Press Herald/Maine Sunday Telegram to the family owned Seattle Times Co. instead of publicly traded companies or investment groups that would have been more likely to trim news staff.

But newsroom campaigns failed to persuade McClatchy Co. to choose private groups favored by unions when the Sacramento, Calif.-based publisher sold a dozen of the 32 newspapers acquired when it bought Knight Ridder last year, Foley said.

“It really does depend on the seller and whether the seller, to put it bluntly, has a conscience,” Foley said.

Copley hopes to pick new owners for the Journal Star and six other newspapers in Illinois and Ohio “within a very few months,” said senior vice president and chief legal officer Harold W. Fuson Jr.

Fuson declined comment on the Guild’s campaign, but said it could influence the Journal Star’s new owners if readers get behind it.

“Ownership is important, but the demands of those communities are ultimately what really matter. And these are all good communities and will require that the new owners serve their needs,” Fuson said.

More than 100 people have signed an online petition supporting the Peoria Guild’s effort on the union’s Web site, which has received more than 5,000 hits since it was launched this month, Towery said.

Towery said the Guild also will seek support from other unions, including one representing thousands of factory workers at Peoria-based Caterpillar Inc., and has enlisted local leaders to back its cause.

“This is my hometown newspaper and even though I’ve had many disagreements with stories that have been written or editorials that have been written, they are the leading forum for local issues, which is what I care about,” said U.S. Rep. Ray LaHood, R-Peoria.

State Rep. David Leitch, R-Peoria, said readers will be the losers if the Journal Star’s sale follows others across the country that have resulted in reduced staff, pages and local coverage.

“You don’t really understand the importance of a strong community newspaper until you lose it, and then it’s too late,” said Leitch, once a reporter for the Journal Star, with readership of 70,000 daily and about 88,000 on Sundays.

The union represents reporters, editors, photographers, page designers and clerks, as well as circulation department employees.

Towery said some cuts are already under way in the Journal Star’s newsroom, with a full-time equivalent of nearly 100 employees. Buyouts have been offered to 14 longtime reporters, editors and clerks, who have until next month to decide whether to leave in exchange for a year’s pay and extended medical benefits.

Union leaders agreed to the offer because it is voluntary, lucrative and will put staffing more in line with industry standards, Towery said.

“We don’t want to go into a sale with a big red target on our newsroom,” Towery said.

Copley officials declined comment on prospective suitors for its Illinois and Ohio papers, which are being sold to cover tax debt related to the death of former chairman and CEO Helen K. Copley in 2004.

Illinois papers are the Journal Star, The (Springfield) State Journal-Register, The (Galesburg) Register-Mail and The (Lincoln) Courier. Ohio papers are The Repository of Canton, The Independent of Massillon and The Times-Reporter of New Philadelphia.

Copley, a privately held company based in La Jolla, Calif., will retain its flagship paper, The San Diego Union-Tribune, the nation’s 21st largest newspaper with circulation of about 304,000.

Edward Atorino, an analyst with Benchmark Co., said Copley likely will find strong demand for its smaller-market papers. He said those papers have generally held their advertising base better than big-city dailies, where declining revenue has dogged efforts to sell properties such as the Tribune Co.

Atorino said Copley could get offers from newspaper chains, venture capitalists and privately held companies. Private companies are least likely to trim news staff, he said, but any buyer would likely look at layoffs first if profits go south.

“Whether it’s Ford Motor Co. or the Boston Globe, when the bottom line starts falling apart the only thing to do is to cut variable costs and labor is your biggest variable cost,” Atorino said.

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